PHOENIX – The theater of the absurd unfolded, of all places, on a baseball diamond. It is a big stage, perfect for the players to dance and act and, in this case, throw a few punches. To look back at the first must-see moment of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and maybe the first legitimately classic event of the tournament's short history, is to revel in how a game, and emotion, and testosterone can turn conflagrant in a hurry. And, of course, what happens when you stare into Satan's eyes.
The devil was all over Chase Field on Saturday as the WBC entries from Canada and Mexico tangled – figuratively for eight innings, then literally for five heated and scary minutes during a brawl that started because of a breach in baseball etiquette. The game ended with the baseball-viewing world captivated.
Just about everybody loves a good basebrawl, and this was more than good. It was Canadian catcher Chris Robinson laying a bunt single down the third-base line with a 9-3 lead because the WBC's run-differential tiebreaker rules encourage teams to play for slaughters. And it was Mexican third baseman Luis Cruz fielding the bunt, placing the ball on his ribs and pointing to the next batter – telling his pitcher Arnold Leon that he damn well better bury one, because nobody shows up Mexico like that. And it was Leon missing on his first two attempts at Rene Tosoni, getting warned by home plate umpire Brian Gorman and then plunking him in the back with the next pitch anyway. And it was Tosoni stepping toward Leon, both benches emptying, the Canadians wanting to do-si-do, the Mexicans accepting the invitation, punches landing, tempers flaring and the whole thing devolving into a jersey-poppin', water-bottle-flyin', national-pride-showin' homage to machismo.
"Nobody will be surprised that Team Canada was involved," said Larry Walker, Canada's first-base coach who later was grazed by a foul ball thrown back at him from the stands. "Because that's what they'll say. All those damn hockey players. I don't think this was necessarily started by us. We were invited into it, so we danced."
[Slideshow: Mexico, Canada brawl at WBC]
Astaire and Rogers it wasn't. Cruz started the fracas by helicoptering his arms in the middle of the crowd. Eduardo Arredondo and Jay Johnson tangled on the ground. Oliver Perez looked around for someone to fight. Leon and Tosoni were in the middle of it. Pete Orr scrapped about. And Alfredo Aceves bum-rushed the pile, scared everyone within a 25-foot radius and found himself yanked off by Walker, who said: "I had a hold of him, and I think I saw Satan in his eyes."
All but Cruz were ejected, and beyond a pair of incidents with fans – one bombing Canada pitching coach Denis Boucher in the head with a loaded water bottle and Walker's near-beaning – the game continued without any more rancor. Canada won 10-3, eliminated Mexico and faces the United States in a winner-advances game Sunday at 4 p.m. ET.
"You can't hurt us Canadians," said Ernie Whitt, Canada's manager.
As much as Canada tried to treat the brawl with a serious tenor – it would, after all, get replayed around the world as the top story from a tournament meant to promote the game – it couldn't entirely park the smirking devil on its shoulders. Robinson, whose bunt prefaced the brawl, said he felt bad about his play instigating it, even if the Canadians were trying to build up a run differential that ultimately was moot after Team USA beat Italy on Saturday night. Again and again, Robinson used one word to describe it.
"The unfortunate part of it was that was a great game," Robinson said.
"It's an unfortunate circumstance," Robinson added.
"It's unfortunate," Robinson continued.
Eventually, the façade cracked.
"Maybe I'll get a tryout with the Leafs," Robinson said.
Team Canada loved the brawl. The Canadians rebounded from an embarrassing mercy-rule loss to Italy the day before with aplomb. And a little fisticuffs now and again never hurts anyone as long as, you know, it doesn't actually hurt anyone, which it didn't on either side.
"It was fun," starting pitcher Chris Leroux said.
Mexico found little joy in it. Manager Rick Renteria seemed embarrassed that either his players didn't understand why Canada would do everything it could to score late or simply ignored it in search of vengeance. Cruz's telling Leon to hit Tosoni was so blatantly obvious, it was embarrassing. If you're going to be an idiot, at least use some subterfuge.
"I think in just the heat of the moment you lose sight of it and maybe that's how it occurred," Renteria said. "It was just a misunderstanding."
Hmmm. If this was just a misunderstanding, a real beef might've involved Brick killing a guy with a trident. So perhaps it was good that it was just a misunderstanding. The WBC either bought that rationale or loved the brawl, too, because it announced no suspensions would stem from it.
"We get mad," Perez said, "but we have to understand this tournament is like that."
It is, and even though the run-differential component came under fire after the game by both Renteria and Whitt as something that encourages a brawl like this, maybe it wasn't such a bad thing. By itself, the brawl did nothing to legitimize the WBC. It uglied it up rather well, actually. But for all of the people who consider the tournament a glorified exhibition, it at least showed the seriousness with which the participants take it. When selling something new to the masses, as baseball continues to try with the WBC, the genuineness of the players matters.
And this was genuine, all right. It didn't, thankfully, escalate to the level of a 1991 Pan Am Games contest in Cuba during which a Canadian player allegedly called a Mexican player a "Third World chile-eater" and incited a brawl that sent multiple people to the hospital, including one with a possible heart attack.
Canada-Mexico 2 gave us Walker popping his jersey toward the stands from which the ball flew, Cruz's public display of stupidity, Leon's pair of whiffs, Los Ojos del Diablo, Canadian stereotypes abound and, lest we forget, a victory by Canada.
"Whatever it takes, we'll do," Whitt said. "It is a tight knit group that we have in that locker room. It's something that's been going on for a number of years. And a lot of people don't realize that, but we play the game, as I've said many times over, with pride and passion, and we'll do whatever it takes to win. And we'll fight for each other."
That much we now know: Canada and Mexico, two countries proud to wear their names across their jerseys, damn sure will fight. They'll do it in the most absurd manner possible. And they'll give the WBC what it has sought for the longest time: something truly classic.
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